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Important Little Experiments

by Aerin Dunford on December 13, 2012

Shop of the Open Heart Oaxaca opened last Sunday afternoon on a bright pink bookshelf. Fifteen gifts were made: Kyrgyzstani coins and handmade dashboard alters, upcycled beer bottle glasses and tales from Carlos Fuentes,a graphic novel signed by the artist and a horse from Germany. Each gift came with a story, a giver and a receiver. The Shop of the Open Heart lasted just 90 minutes. In that short time I noticed something shift for many of us.

My decision about what to offer to the Shop was a bit complicated. For days I pondered my gift: something I’d made? something I loved? It needed to have a story… and be something someone else might want or need. On Sunday morning I woke up early and thought of a perfect gift: my can tab purse. It is an upcycled bag that I had painstakingly crafted out of pop tabs. It had traveled the world and was full of stories. Many people had asked its price at upcycling festivals and fairs. Every time I responded that it was not for sale. Perfect. I was ready to let it go. But my partner said that I couldn’t. He said it would incite envy, causing a Black Friday-like frenzy at the Shop of the Open Heart. He said that my motives were selfish. So I hemmed and hawed for hours. But, in the end, I did gift it.

The woman who received the can tab purse is named Elizabeth and she lives in China part of the year. When Elizabeth picked up the purse, she had no idea what it was made of. She did not know I had made it. She chose my gift because it was shiny, and because she needed a purse. Very practical! But when she heard its story, her appreciation for the gift grew. After the Shop was over I realized that I really had been ready to let go of the purse. I did so without attachment and without needing acknowledgement, thanks or praise. A true gift.

I received a turquoise and red painting made by a 12-year-old friend of mine named Max. I’ve always been thrilled by Max’s creativity, humor and positive attitude. Max dug a small blank canvas out of a box in the garage one lazy Saturday afternoon when both of his parents were busy with other things. When he finished painting, he felt there was still a lot of blank space. So he filled in these empty spots with images cut out of a magazine, creating a hybrid collage/painting. Now, whenever I see the flash of red and turquoise on my bookshelf I think of Max´s bright red hair, his creativity, and unlimited capacity for believing that the impossible is possible.

Together during the Shop of the Open Heart, we noticed that the presence of the gift facilitated an opening for connection that is often absent or uncomfortable in our day-to-day modern lives. Some visitors to our Shop made significant connections for future collaborations. We witnessed and wove relationship through our stories. Though our experiment in gifting was simple and small, it’s these kinds of experiences that give me the courage to walk out of beliefs, mindsets and institutions that no longer serve, and to walk on to build new ways of living, relating and organizing.

During our recent Tweet Chat about cultivating Gift Culture as an alternative transacting I noticed a tendency to see gifting and generosity through the lens of the money economy. I sensed a desire to count and measure, to weigh and balance our giving and receiving. Is it even? Is it fair? Are we trying to make our gifts fit neatly into a spreadsheet? This shift from scarcity to abundance, I realized, requires a different kind of thinking and radical trust.

Participants tweeted about the viability of Gift Culture only when there is a “surplus.” Some commented that we need “reserve capacity” in order to gift to those around us who have not yet “met capacity.” Others said that it depends on whether or not we are operating in an abundance economy or a scarcity economy. For me, it has more to do with mindset: can we operate from a place where we fundamentally believe that there is enough? More than enough? Or are do we live from the perspective that we will always have to struggle to get our needs met because there’s simply not enough to go around? Not enough love, food, shelter, knowledge. It’s the shift in perspective and the willingness to take a radical leap of faith that make the difference.

And this is why I believe small-scale, simple experiments in living and interacting from new perspectives are essential. I recognize that leaping headfirst from the precipice of the known, the secure, from our comfortable, familiar worldview is downright terrifying. It’s scary to jump into the trembling between walking out and walking on.

Experiments like Shop of the Open Heart, Shikshantar’s Cycle Yatra, and HelpOthers.org’s Smile Cards offer us the opportunity to live these different perspectives and outlooks on the world in a relatively safe, well-defined way. Of course, I hope and trust that these will lead to bigger experiments and maybe even radical changes in the way people see and live in the world. But small, lived moments that shed light on new possibilities give us the courage to take these bigger leaps. Whether we’re trying things out in the field of abundance and gift culture, playing with the power of transformational play, or cultivating leaders-as-hosts, these spaces for experimentation are keys to unlocking different views of the world around us.

So while our pink bookshelf Shop of the Open Heart was brief and small, I know that the experience continues to ripple out through the community of people that came. I know that our time together triggered strong emotions and catalyzed further conversation. I have no idea if the Shop of the Open Heart will change the way people live their lives, or even the way they see the world and their relationships. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It just seems vital to me that I keep opening spaces for experimentation in new ways of seeing without fear of failure. It is important to keep learning and sharing our learning. What I am sure of is that gifting and receiving in this way opens doorways to my vulnerable heart and deepens the connections I have with those around me.